Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/April 1885/The Religious Value of the Unknowable

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WE have not to take part here for or against the philosophy of Evolution. The only points we wish to examine in the controversy are, first, if the historical development of the religious sentiment can be summed up into a gradual reduction of the divine attributes, into a simplification, or, to borrow Mr. Spencer's barbarous term, a deantbropomorphization of the divinity; next, if the theory of the Unknowable has all the elements necessary to beget a religion; and, lastly, if the religious sentiment is tending to divest itself of every moral element, or whether it is destined, as the Comtists maintain, to confound itself with altruism or devotion to humanity.

Mr. Harrison sharply criticises the theory that ascribes the origin of religion to doubles appearing in dreams. We are not fanatics in regard to this hypothesis, but would prefer to admit, with M. A. Reville, that religion began with the worship of natural objects or cosmic phenomena personified, animated, anthropomorphized by the imagination of the primitive man. But these reserves involve no impeachment of Mr. Spencer's general reasoning, so far as concerns either the spiritual nature of the first notion that man formed of the divine, or the work of simplification and purification which that notion has constantly undergone in the course of ages. The thesis of Mr. Harrison, on the contrary—that man began with the adoration of natural objects frankly regarded as such—appears to us absolutely contrary to reason and observation. He cites, for example, the ancient religion of China, which was based entirely on veneration of the earth, the sky, and ancestors, considered objectively and not as the residence of immaterial beings. This is to play at hazard, for, without insisting on what ancestors "considered objectively" may be, it has been found precisely that the religion of the ancient Chinese Empire is the most perfect type of organized animism, and that it regarded even the material objects out of which it made its gods as the inseparable manifestation, the envelope, or even the body of invisible spirits.[2]

How shall we explain it that after the works of Tylor, Spencer, Max Müller, Réville, and Tiele, a thinker as intelligent and well-informed as Mr. Harrison can still pause at a thesis long ago passed by by science? It is, we believe, a remarkable instance of the influence which Auguste Comte still exerts over his orthodox disciples, and which can only be compared with that of Aristotle over the scholastics of the middle ages. We know that Comte borrowed from President De Brosses the hypothesis of primitive fetichism, and that he introduced it in the series of three states (fetichism, polytheism, and monotheism), through which religion in his view had invariably to pass.

We think, then, that Mr. Spencer is right in representing the evolution of the idea of God as tending to render the object of worship less and less sensible to man, more and more incapable of falling under our senses. But this process of abstraction must stop somewhere, else even the existence of God will at length become its victim, and that would evidently go beyond the Spencerian doctrine. The whole problem consists, then, in knowing where this stopping-place is to be found; and, according as we start from spiritual theism, from pantheism or from agnosticism, we shall be able to reach a different solution without really departing from the line of religious development.

Mr. Spencer, on his side, estimates that the end will be reached when the idea of God has been divested of all limitation and of every condition. There will then remain for us the one absolute certainty, that man "is ever in the presence of an Infinite and Eternal Energy, from which all things proceed."

Is there nothing here but a pure negation, as Mr. Harrison asserts? The terms of the formula themselves prove that the question is of what may be supposed to be the most positive thing in the world—the stuff of which the Universe is made. Mr. Spencer speaks repeatedly of the Unknowable as the power that manifests itself at the same time in the Universe and in the Consciousness, as the Supreme Reality which is concealed behind the changing course of phenomena. He attributes to it, as Mr. Harrison recognizes, unity, homogeneity, immanence, unlimited persistence in time and space. He assigns it, for modes of action, the laws of the Universe; he sets it face to face with phenomena, both internal and external, in the relation of substance to manifestation, if not of cause to effect. Still more, the Comtist critic himself admits that we may accept with full confidence all that the evolutionist philosophy affirms and contests with reference to the permanent indications of an ultimate energy. Now, is not this concession of Mr. Harrison's the complete refutation of his thesis relative to the negative nature of the Unknowable?

He adds, indeed, that an existence of which we can know nothing remains, in the religious point of view, as if it did not exist. To this objection it may be replied that he consents himself to admit mystery as an element of the religious sentiment. We will only add to this, with Mr. Spencer, that it is an essential element of it, and in this respect the Unknowable is susceptible of satisfying the most difficult imaginations, for it is the mystery of mysteries, and something that we may be sure will never be cleared up in this world, whatever may be the progress of science. Mr. Harrison commits an error—especially strange with a positivist—when he reproaches evolutionism for using the term Unknowable instead of Unknown. The Unknown includes a knowable part, the sum of the phenomena and laws which still escape our perception, but which we may be able to know and doubtless will know more and more. The Unknowable, on the other hand, represents what will always escape our knowledge by virtue of our intellectual organization itself—the first cause, the Noumenon, the essence of things—unless Mr. Harrison, urging the doctrine of positivism to an extreme, prohibits us from mentioning all that transcends phenomena and their relations, even in order to declare it Unknowable! As M. Littré admits: "Immensity, material as well as intellectual, appears under its double character of reality and inaccessibility. It is an ocean that beats against our shore, and for which we have neither bark nor sail, but the clear vision of which is as salutary as formidable!"

A second element, which every one agrees in declaring characteristic of religion, is that feeling, of a complex nature, which is interpreted, according to circumstances, into wonder or fear, enthusiasm or stupor, before the object of religious contemplation. Is not this one of the impressions most easily engendered by the discovery of that mysterious energy that rises, at the end of all our investigations, in all the avenues of knowledge, as if by the conception of that substantial stratum which remains when all else changes and passes away primordial foundation of Nature and consciousness, without which, if we could only suppose it absent for a second, the whole Universe would resolve itself into chaos or into nothing?

Schleiermacher referred the essence of religion to a feeling of dependence. Does not Evolution teach that the force of which we are conscious whenever we produce a change by our own effort is correlative to the power that transcends consciousness, and can we imagine a closer dependence than this relation of the individual with the ultimate Energy of which it is, like all of Nature, a transient production? It is of a power conceived in this manner that we may well say, In illo vivimus, movemur, et sumus (in it we live, and move, and are).

The conditions indispensable to becoming the object of a religion are thus found in the Unknowable, as well as in the Eternal, the Absolute, the Self-Existent, the Most High, the Only Pure, or whatever other qualifications men may have made the equivalent of the divine. The last word of Evolution agrees with the definitions of the most refined theologists, which, transcending vulgar symbolism, have constantly recognized God in the double character of reality and incomprehensibility. We may add that, before becoming the scientific faith of Spencer, Huxley, and even of Haeckel, this religious conception has sufficed for men of the highest mind and the most pious imagination, such as Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, Kant, Goethe, Shelley, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Emerson, and even M. Rénan, It can lead not to religion only, but even to mysticism, however little, like some Neoplatonists and certain Hindoo philosophers, one may become absorbed in the conception of the supreme unity.[3] Under this relation, the danger is not that it will remain without influence, but that it will communicate to its adepts a kind of vertigo more formidable than the fascination of the abyss, either by the contrast of its incommensurable grandeur with the insignificance of our being, or by the opposition of its immutable Unity with the unlimited Variety and perpetual expansion of the material Universe. These sentiments, as Mr. Spencer remarks, can only increase in frequency as well as in intensity as the human mind becomes more capable in seizing the comprehensiveness of things and their complex relations.

Certainly, it is no longer possible to attribute to that Supreme Reality goodness, consciousness, and personality, as we conceive them. But do our conceptions exhaust the modes of the infinite? Mr. Harrison will see only the negative side of the Unknowable. Whether you employ, he tells us, the term existence or energy, you never have anything but a scientific generalization, a dumb, blind, insensible entity, without common attributes, and consequently without possible sympathy with man. Mr. Spencer meets the objection in advance in his "First Principles." "Those who espouse this alternative position," he says, "make the erroneous assumption that the choice is between personality and something lower than personality; whereas the choice is rather between personality and something higher. Is it not just possible there is a mode of being as much transcending Intelligence and Will as these transcend mechanical motion? It is true that we are totally unable to conceive any such higher mode of being. But this is not a reason for questioning its existence; it is rather the reverse. Have we not seen how utterly incompetent our minds are to form even an approach to a conception of that which underlies all phenomena? Is it not proved that this incompetency is the incompetency of the Conditioned to grasp the Unconditioned? Does it not follow that the Ultimate Cause can not in any respect be conceived by us because it is in every respect greater than can be conceived?"

Energy is a word that has a bad sound to many ears. We apprehend in it the idea of brute, of material force. Here, again, Mr. Spencer is able to tell us that we let ourselves be carried away by the analogy of muscular effort. But all the languages of civilized peoples permit us to rise above this literal acceptation, and to interpret the term in a larger sense, as implying mental and moral activities. If the Universe, with its laws and harmonies, if man with his capacities and aspirations, proceed from the same Energy, it must be that that Energy contains in puissance whatever in our eyes goes to constitute the grandeur of Nature and the glory of the human mind. Further, as it should likewise include the germ of all its future, or even possible developments, it must necessarily represent a cause superior to all its known effects—that is, to the finest and highest manifestations of that which we regard as the rational order of things.

Mr. Harrison finally declares that the Unknowable can never have temples, rites, or ministers. We will not inquire here to what point these are indispensable elements of religion. The ascetic school of India, a fruit of the reaction against the excessive ritualism of the Brahmans, has always dispensed with external worship. We can easily conceive the religions of Mohammed and Confucius as without mosques or pagodas. Buddhism probably had convents long before it built temples. At Rome itself, seventeen centuries ago, there flourished a sect already numerous, whose partisans and adversaries agreed in saying that it had neither temples nor altars nor images.[4] So it was regarded as atheistical. It must be acknowledged that the sect has acquitted itself well since then. In any case, the affirmation of the Comtist writer is already contradicted by the facts. Not only have we Protestant theologians, more or less orthodox, who are endeavoring to reconcile the doctrine of evolution with faith in the Christian revelation, but we can point to liberal and even Unitarian congregations in America and England, whose whole theology consists in Mr. Spencer's religious conception, and who do not hesitate to avow the fact. If Mr. Harrison will take the pains to visit them, he will see that, even after all the old theological formulas have been given up, the Unknowable can serve as the foundation of a worship, without being reduced to the formula and symbol of xn.

But these disciples of Spencer, by developing the religious consequences of his doctrine, have made up for his silence on perhaps the only point in which he exposes his flank to the attacks of Comtism. Feeling that the flaw in the armor is revealed here, Mr. Harrison keeps on reiterating the charge, and reproaching his adversary with having forgotten that religion necessarily includes a moral discipline. We believe it is inexact to assume that morals is an original element of religion, but it incontestably, by the progress of ideas, has become an essential one. In reducing religion to a sort of mystic contemplation, Mr. Spencer has left out those moral sentiments and practical applications which, according to the just remark of Mr. Harrison, are the real sphere of religious activity. Evolution confides to science the task of formulating the laws of ethics, or, in more general terms, the principles of the true, the good, and the beautiful. But does Science, which addresses itself exclusively to the reason, possess a sufficient sanction to guarantee, under all circumstances, the triumph of those laws over the appetites or the passions of the individual, when once the commandment of a divine revelator or the categorical imperative of Kantian morals has been replaced by the simple suggestions of plain interest? It is, we believe, in sentiment, as Comte and his disciples declare, that must be sought the mainsprings of duty, of devotion, of the spirit of sacrifice, and of all the virtues which, perhaps, yet more than mental progress, make up the grandeur of the individual and the strength of societies.

What is this sentiment, which, to attain its end completely, must represent our deepest and most intense aspirations? Worship of Humanity, replies Mr. Harrison, following Comte. But humanity can not isolate itself from Nature, and Nature itself is simply the phenomenal manifestation of the Supreme Energy. Mr. Spencer has already said, in his first studies of sociology, that nothing like humanity can remove, save temporarily, the idea of a power of which humanity is the feeble and fugitive product, a power which, under ever-changing manifestations, existed long before humanity, and which will continue to manifest itself under other forms when humanity shall be no more.

It remains to examine whether the contemplation of this power can provoke in us sentiments that will practically affect our conduct. The response can only be affirmative, provided we consent, with Mr. Spencer, to regard the laws which reason discovers in the moral as well as in the physical world as modes of the Unknowable. Comte has defined religion as the state of spiritual unity resulting from the convergence of all our thoughts and all our acts toward the service of humanity. How much stronger and more efficacious would this state of spiritual unity become if, instead of resting exclusively on the necessary relations of men, it based itself on the sum of our relations with the Universe, and if, while retaining as its object the reign of justice or happiness in human society, it enveloped that object in the broader end of the conformity of our conduct with the action of the power "other than ourselves, which labors to put order into the world," or, as Matthew Arnold defines it in his felicitous and celebrated formula, "the Power not ourselves, that makes for righteousness"!

But is not this to attribute to the Unknowable an object, a design, a will—attributes absolutely incompatible with the unconditioned and the infinite? Is it not, in short, to return to the doctrine of final causes which has been proscribed by Evolution?

We may answer that, if modern science has cast discredit on the old system of final causes, it has not, it appears, prohibited us from assigning a certain end to the evolution of the Universe taken as a whole; that the tendency toward this end, aside from knowing whether it is conscious or not, intelligent or not, is easily substantiated by the numberless indications of a gradual progress in the development of nature as well as of humanity; and that this tendency toward a determined end contradicts the system of evolution only in so far as it may be copied after the manifestations of our volitional activity. If a person holds that the notions of object, end, tendency, and predetermination are derived from our subjective experiences, we should observe—as Mr. Spencer has done of our notion of force, deduced from the muscular effort—that we are constrained to think of external energy in terms borrowed from our consciousness of internal energy, and that there is nothing to prevent our seeing equally in the notions thus formed the simple symbol of the reality. The essential point is not to forget that here also the Unknowable should be superior and not inferior to our broadest conception of the human faculties.

We have, however, no need at this time to go beyond Mr. Spencer's written thought. He affirms that the laws of Nature are the modes of action of the Unknowable, and that the most important of them, the law of evolution, tends, in the existing Universe, to equilibrium, harmony, and co-ordination, which is interpreted in the moral world by a more complete submission to the injunctions of duty, by the introduction of more justice into the relations of men; in short, by the gradual realization of the conditions necessary to the constant progress of the individual and of society. The more, then, man is conscious of his relations with the Unknowable, and the more he comprehends the solidarity that binds all parts of the Universe, chiefly the members of humanity, the more he will grasp the importance of his modest part in the great drama of Evolution, and the more he will feel inclined to follow the elevated aspirations of his nature, regarded as the expressions of the Eternal Energy, which, if the philosophy of Mr. Spencer is not a vain illusion, is leading us toward a better future.

Thus the religion of the Unknowable assimilates to itself an ultimate factor which is found in all religions; the desire of uniting one's self with the object of worship, or, at least, of conforming to the rules that proceed from it. Mr. Spencer seems himself to have comprehended the necessity of this extension, if we may judge from a letter which he addressed last year to one of his most earnest disciples in the United States, the Rev. J. M. Savage, a Unitarian minister, in which he felicitated him on having clearly brought out the religious and ethical sides of evolutionary doctrines.

On the other hand, the resources which the religious spirit discovers in the doctrine of the Unknowable have struck even some of Mr. Harrison's co-religionists, who, less bound, perhaps, to the letter of Positivist tradition, have recognized the necessity of giving a broader and more solid support to the worship of Humanity. As Mr. William Frey, an American Comtist, wrote to the Boston "Index" in 1882, the strong feeling which the Comtists experience toward humanity can only become deeper and more intense if they regard it as a mediator between men and the Unknowable, because there will come into play the strongest cord of the religious sentiment—the aspiration of man toward the Infinite.

We should not be surprised at the influence, amounting to a kind of fascination, which the philosophy of Mr. Spencer exercises over an increasing portion of the Anglo-Saxon public. Whether true or false, complete or incomplete, it unquestionably represents the vastest and grandest synthesis that human genius has produced for a long time. After having embraced in succession all the phases of cosmical evolution, all the degrees of organic, sensible, intellectual, and social development, we could foresee that the eminent thinker would enter the domain of religious ideas to inquire into the application of his general law there. We have seen by what conclusions, at once sympathetic and original, his views, in this regard, trench upon nearly all the systems that have issued from the contemporaneous scientific movement.

In 1860 Mr. Laugel called him the last of the English metaphysicians. Mr. Spencer would no more accept this designation now than then. It is nevertheless true that his doctrine of the Unknowable, as Mr. Harrison asserts, is, before everything, of theology, and that in his hands the evolution of Religion becomes the religion of Evolution. The future alone can tell what lot is reserved for this conception, which is doubtlessly not new in itself, but which, for the first time, perhaps, is presented to us as the logical and indispensable complement of a system exclusively based on Positivist methods.

  1. From "The Nature and Reality of Religion," being the last part of the author's review of the controversy between Mr. Spencer and Mr. Harrison, in which he presents his own conclusions.
  2. See, notably, Tiele, "Manuel de l'histoire des Religions," translated by M. Maurice Vernes, Book II; and in the "Revue de l'Histoire des Religions," the "Religion de l'Ancien Empire Chinois," by M. Julius Happel (Vol. IV, No. 6).
  3. We cite, for example, the following passage from an address made by the great mystic of the Bramo Somaj, Keshub Chunder Sen, at a time when no one accused him of having transgressed the most strict rationalism: "(For the true Yogui) forms become informal, the informal takes form. Mind discovers itself in matter, matter transforms itself into mind. In the glorious sun is revealed the glory of glories. In the serene moon mind imbibes of all serenities. In the reverberation of the thunder is the Voice of the Lord which makes itself heard afar. All things are full of Him. Open your eyes, behold he is without; shut them, he is found within. Then your asceticism (yoga), disciple, will be complete; aspire constantly to this plenitude." There is not a word in these exalted conceptions in contradiction with the religious conceptions of Mr. Spencer. Haeckel himself has said in his "Morphology": "The philosophy which sees the mind and force of God acting in all the phenomena of Nature is alone worthy of the grandeur of the Being who embraces all. . . . In him. we live, and act, and are. The philosophy of nature becomes theology." All depends on the mental angle under which the disciple of Spencer contemplates Nature, or the manifestations of the Unknowable.
  4. Minutius Felix, Octav, pp. 10, 32.